Like just about every other person watching late-night TV that evening, Britt-Marie Culey wasn't happy, couldn't sleep, and was dreading that another day of work was fast approaching. Her job as a medical technician in a hospital earned her decent money, but the passion just wasn't there. Worse, the decision of whether or not to go back to school to become a physician's assistant was looming.
And then the infomercial that forever changed the course of her life began to air.
"It was an infomercial for culinary school," Culey recalls with infinite clarity. "It was showing happy students cooking and baking and I thought, 'Why can't this be my life?'"
Instead of going to work the next morning, Culey drove herself over to Western Culinary Institute in downtown Portland and enrolled in its Le Cordon Bleu program.
"And then, of course, the panic set in."
She needn't have worried. In the years since, Culey has taken what was a lifelong passion for baking and shaped it into a thriving specialty desserts business. As owner and executive pastry chef of Coquette Patisserie, Culey prepares fine French pastries for sale to retail and wholesale customers throughout Northeast Ohio.
After graduation, internships and stints in France, Culey settled in Cleveland with her husband and business partner Shane. Neither had any familial connection to their newly adopted city, selecting it instead based on its burgeoning food scene. They bought a house in Cleveland Heights, renovated the kitchen, and hung out the proverbial shingle.
"At first I would go door to door asking restaurants if they had a pastry chef or made their own pastries; I'd drop off sample boxes and follow up," she says.
She also began selling her desserts—chocolate mousse cakes and fruit tarts, triomphes and German-style cheesecakes — at the Shaker Square farmers market, where she has been a weekly fixture for the past four years or so. Her colorful macarons and pretty-as-a-picture pastries have been well received from the jump, she says.
"The response when we started was amazing," Culey explains. "Many of the shoppers at the Shaker market are well traveled and have seen pastries like these before. They were excited to finally see them in Cleveland."
Not everybody was as well informed, she recalls. Some shoppers thought her pastries were merely colorful fake props used to sell the china on which they were presented.
In addition to the weekly markets and her wholesale restaurant and catering accounts, Culey bakes special order wedding cakes decorated with meticulously crafted sugar flowers. In fact, Coquette Patisserie is doing so well that it is officially busting out at the seams at the home bakeshop.
"We've outgrown our current space," she says. "We've secured a location for a retail pastry shop and lounge."